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The Women's Library Whitechapel, east London A treasure trove of books about women's lives comes up sparkling in an East End wash house. Victoria Neumark reports

For a long time, visitors to the UK's largest collection of books by and about women had to burrow into a dingy basement in London's East End. There they would approach the Fawcett Collection's librarian and, perhaps, ask to see one of the earliest texts on women's rights, published in 1652; one of the first English cookbooks (The Queen-Like Closet or Rich Cabinet by Hannah Wolley, published in 1677); or the diary of an intrepid woman traveller of the early 19th century. Or, with true reverence, they might tremulously inquire, as one American visitor did, after the first edition of Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women, as vibrant in its "strictures on political and moral subjects" today as it was on publication in 1792. (After holding the volume, the visitor handed it back with a sigh. It had been worth the trip.) From this month, far more visitors will find their trip to what is now the Women's Library inspirational and memorable. In lavish new premises almost next door to the dreaded basement, the collection (60,000 printed items plus banners, ephemera and other exhibits) will be freely open to school parties, local residents and community groups as well as international scholars. In one of the most beautiful conversions of recent years, the library has been housed in an ex-wash house next to its parent, London Guildhall University (which has administered it since 1977). There is now space for school activities, lectures, and 40 readers at a time, as well as a cafe, a performance space and exhibition gallery.

Resplendent in varnished brick, American oak, York stone, copper and brushed steel, the new facilities will evoke after their opening next week the wonder and sense of transformation which the original 1846 wash house (only the second in Britain) must have brought to the neighbourhood. The wash house, as a time capsule discovered in its foundations reveals, was paid for by charitable subscription, headed by the Royal Family; the library conversion has been largely funded by the National Lottery, with help from private foundations.

Library director Antonia Byatt says: "It's exciting to be here, between the university, the city and the East End, one of the few university research libraries completely open to the public." Jo Green, education officer, says: "Anyone can join the library. All they have to do is bring some identification and leave a deposit for their card." Inset days, school visits and activities, performances and public lectures (one forthcoming talk is by Marguerite Patten on 100 years of cookbooks) will now be possible, in purpose-built spaces; Jo Green is eager to meet schools' needs.

The bulk of the library's collection - printed material from 1920 onwards covering women's campaigns, women's rights, women's lives and social history, is on the open shelves. The reading room, spacious and well-lit, its shelves stuffed with self-improvement tracts and law tomes, cookery books and radical manifestos, is well appointed. Three carrels are available for hire; there are access points for six PCs online, laptop points along the reading desk, microfiche and microfilm readers, and what Antonia Byatt describes as "the world's biggest photocopier". And a space is set aside for small study groups, such as A-level social history students.

The rest of the collections can be accessed on request. They are a treasure trove of social and political history, with much for GCSE and A-level students to relish.

The Cavendish Bentinck Library collection of rare books contains volumes from the 17th century onwards - impassioned diatribes against the monstrous upsurgence of women rub shoulders with manuals for correct conduct.

The archives of such bodies as the National Council for One-Parent Families (dating back to 1918), the National Federation of Women's Institutes and the Movement for the Ordination of Women are packed with material ranging from the wacky (a badge from the early Eighties proclaims: "God is an equal opportunities employer, pity about the Church") to the profound. These collections offer fascinating insights into women's changing roles.

Personal papers of such diverse characters as Helena Normanton (first woman student at the Bar and one of the first two women QCs) and Elsie Bowerman (who worked as an orderly in Russia during the First World War and the 1917 revolution, then sailed on the Titanic and survived) give an unequalled, intimate glimpse into individual lives, as do such mementoes as Emmeline Pankhurst's Gladstone bag and the tiny purse (containing a return ticket) found on Emily Wilding Davison, the suffragette who threw herself under the King's horse at Epsom on Derby Day in 1913.

A periodicals room takes in Marie Claire, the feminist Red Rag (which had a short career in 1973) and the 18th-century Lady's Magazine.

In the exhibition hall, campaign banners, beautifully embroidered by Mary Lowndes for the Artists' Suffrage League and "the right size for a woman to carry", hang next to posters from the Suffrage Atelier. The opening exhibition, Cooks and Campaigners, features selections from the collection by 50 people, ranging from children's author Jacqueline Wilson and feminist historian Elaine Showalter to fashion guru Isabella Blow. Cherie Booth has chosen an exhibit on law, Rabbi Julia Neuberger and union leader Bill Morris have chosen work, Josceline Dimbleby cooking and Yasmin Alibhai Brown servants. Each has given reasons on how and why, for example, a Tampax ad from the 1960s might appeal to a woman worrying whether her man "appreciates in his wife scrupulous personal cleanliness".

Certainly food for thought when juxtaposed with Barbara Cartland's suggestion for an all-white meal to celebrate a couple's 10th anniversary, to be served by the bride in her (all-white) wedding dress. It reminded me of the old Virginia Slims advert: "You've come a long way, baby." This isn't in the collection, but perhaps it should be.

Library open Tuesday-Saturday (times vary, see website); exhibition Monday-Saturday until July 13. For education bookings and to discuss needs, call Jo Green on 020 7320 3504. The Women's Library, Old Castle Street, London E1 7NT, tel: 020 7320 2222; fax 020 7320 2333; website: www.thewomenslibrary.ac.uk

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